Updated: Sep 28, 2020
Happy 4th of July!
Today I wanted to celebrate our American holiday in a special way for my fellow book-lovers with a list of “19 Fiction Books That Shaped America.”
This list includes fiction by American authors that I have personally read, and which I believe have had a major influence over time.
(This list was inspired by the “Books That Shaped America” list put out by the Library of Congress during a special exhibit they hosted in June of 2012. The original LoC exhibit featured novels, poetry, and non-fiction books that all “shaped Americans’ views of their world and the world’s views of America.” If you want to see the full list put out by the LoC back in 2012, click here: https://www.loc.gov/item/prn-12-123/)
So without further ado, here is my adapted list of “Fiction That Shaped America,”… books I have actually read myself (so that I could comment on why I think each was so impactful!), and which have stirred imagination and contemplation in the readers of their day and continue to do so today.
19 Fiction Books That Shaped America
1. Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820)
According to the Library of Congress, this was “one of the first works of fiction by an American author to become popular outside the United States.” Though Irving did not invent the concept of the Headless Horseman, his variation of the story has been remade countless times as TV shows, movies, and more. I read this in college, and though it was sort of difficult to get through (it’s long, and the writing style is dense), it is definitely a classic worth exploring as the source behind so many modern adaptations.
2. Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Scarlet Letter” (1850)
This novel is set in New England in a strong Puritan culture, and explores the ideas of sin, guilt, and evil. Hawthorne’s powerful use of symbolism and his strong, thought-provoking themes have made his writing, and this book in particular, a common subject for study and literary analysis… I remember studying several of Hawthorne’s stories in my college literature classes!
3. Herman Melville, “Moby-Dick”; or, “The Whale” (1851)
Who hasn’t heard of Moby Dick? This is an extremely well-known and frequently-studied work of literature. American students from high school to college are asked to read and analyze this book. In fact, one school wrote an entire blog post explaining their decision to include Moby Dick in their curriculum for 11th-grade English:
“Moby Dick touches on many important American themes such as the frontier. Similarly, it provides a great way to talk about literary movements such as romanticism (which it both employs and questions) and modernism (which its unconventional narrative structure anticipates in fascinating ways). It also provides a way to look at how different American writers respond to each other. There are sections of Moby Dick where Ishmael is clearly responding to the ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. In others, his similes echo the work of Homer and Milton… The richness of Melville’s prose provides an elegant model and the opportunity to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of elaborate ornamentation in writing.”
(See full post here: https://www.hackleyschool.org/page/news-detail?pk=844380)
I’ve heard students complain about Moby Dick (it’s a VERY long book, among other things), but I taught an excerpt in a high school literature class and some of my students actually liked it enough that they wanted to go read the rest of the book!
4. Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852)
I have only read parts of this one (I’ll just admit that up front!). But I recently attended a homeschool convention where this very book was discussed as an example of literature’s power to change an entire nation. The empathy Stowe’s writing elicited for her fictional characters opened readers’ eyes to what was happening in reality and stirred up a real-world societal shift. It doesn’t get much more influential than that.
5. Mark Twain, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1884)
The Library of Congress’ description of this book included this:
Novelist Ernest Hemingway famously said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ … All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”
There’s really not much left to say after that! Though controversial, this book has had a massive and lasting influence on writers and readers alike.
6. Stephen Crane, “The Red Badge of Courage” (1895)
I read this novel in school, and it was… heart-wrenching. Crane’s ability to depict the brutality and cost of war through the eyes of this story’s characters is the reason it has had such an impact over time. According to the Library of Congress, “most war novels until that time focused more on the battles than on their characters.” Crane, on the other hand, dives deep into the personal impact of the battle on an individual, and by doing so, delivers a powerful and thought-provoking portrayal of war.
7. L. Frank Baum, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” (1900)
The Library of Congress calls this “the first fantasy written by an American to enjoy an immediate success upon publication.” Has any American child not heard of the yellow-brick road, the Wicked Witch, or Dorothy and her friends traveling to Oz? I know even the movie is deeply ingrained into my childhood memories… and all that started with Baum’s book. As the LoC explains:
…so powerful was its effect on the American imagination, so evocative its use of the forces of nature in its plots, so charming its invitation to children of all ages to look for the element of wonder in the world around them that author L. Frank Baum was forced by demand to create book after book about Dorothy and her friends.
8. Jack London, “The Call of the Wild” (1903)
A classic survival story that explores the Klondike gold rush and the lives of sled dogs, this book is read and taught in classrooms even today. I’ve also only read parts of this one… but I fully intend to remedy that, and soon.
9. F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby” (1925)
Recently made into a movie, this story is probably known by most everyone at this point, if it wasn’t before. I have read this book multiple times, as it was required in multiple English classes at different points in my education. For me, it provided a powerful and extremely memorable glimpse at what life in the 20s may have been like, creating a skeleton upon which all the other historical info I learned about that era attached itself. When I think of the 20s, I see Daisy, Gatsby, and the others, the glowing light across the water, the giant eyes watching from the billboard… accurate historical portrayal or not, this book definitely left its impact on the young me.
10. William Faulkner, “The Sound and the Fury” (1929)
I read this book in college, and — though disturbing in many, many ways — it was profoundly moving. And confusing. I wouldn’t recommend it to young readers, but it had a huge impact on me as a college student studying fiction-writing because of its shifting POVs and stream-of-consciousness narration. It’s a dense, difficult book, but it felt so vividly accurate in its portrayal of character thoughts and emotions, and I can definitely understand why Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1950.
11. Margaret Mitchell, “Gone With the Wind” (1936)
I have known of this book since childhood and saw parts of the movie as a teenager, but I didn’t actually read it until a couple years ago when it was the summer selection for the book club I attend. It was long (like 1,000 pages!), took forever to read… and left me wishing for more. I liked it so much more than I expected to, and I fully understand why it was such an influential, important book for its time, and why it remains so today. It has been criticized for some things, but Mitchell’s depiction of life during the Civil War definitely enhanced my view on life during that era.
12. Zora Neale Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937)
I was originally drawn to this book because of its title, which made me ask “whose eyes?” and because I kept hearing people reference it. I read this in adulthood, by choice (imagine that!) rather than as a school assignment, though I believe it is taught in schools as well. The book is bizarre in parts, but intensely moving, and scenes from it have stuck with me years later. This book, according to the Library of Congress post, “paved the way for younger black writers such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.”
13. Richard Wright, “Native Son” (1940)
This one was included on the Library of Congress listing, but I’m putting it on this list more as a brutally-honest review than a recommendation. I have read it. This book was required reading in my high school, and while it was thematically powerful, it was also very, very disturbing. I ended up reading the entire thing (whereas some of my friends quit partway through) because I felt I needed the closure… which the ending only sort of provided. It includes graphic descriptions of violence, rape, and seems to not-so-subtly promote the idea that society “makes” certain people into criminals.
While I do believe that when people are placed in desperate situations, we — as individuals — have a responsibility of compassion and kindness toward our fellow humans, I disagree with the implication that this somehow removes any one person’s responsibility for their own choices. Though I understand the cultural impact and the thematic reasoning that likely led them to include this book on a school reading list, I would not recommend it for teens and don’t really agree with its placement on a high school required reading list… but adults, please take this review for what it’s worth and make your own decision.
14. Margaret Wise Brown, “Goodnight Moon” (1947)
I love children’s books, and this one is a great example of how a really good one can transcend ages. It’s a favorite of many, many children at bedtime.
15. E.B. White, “Charlotte’s Web” (1952)
The Library of Congress’ explanation for this listing pretty much says it all:
According to Publishers Weekly, “Charlotte’s Web” is the best-selling paperback for children of all time. One reason may be that, although it was written for children, reading it is just as enjoyable for adults. The book is especially notable for the way it treats death as a natural and inevitable part of life in a way that is palatable for young people.
16. Ray Bradbury, “Fahrenheit 451” (1953)
This is a book-lover’s book, for sure, as the entire plot centers around the power of books and literature. Set in a fictional, dystopian future where books are outlawed, this literary sci-fi book explores how reading and literacy are central to a society’s awareness and critical thought… and also takes some digs at TV, but that’s mostly because Bradbury was concerned the rise of television would destroy all interest in reading.
17. Dr. Seuss, “The Cat in the Hat” (1957)
This made the Library of Congress’ “Books That Shaped America” list, and I was actually really happy about that! I have always loved the quirky, imaginative, and thought-provoking stories of Dr. Seuss, and their rhythmic style made them favorites for me as an early reader and also opened up a love of narrative poems for me.
The Library of Congress listing says that,
“Theodore Seuss Geisel was removed as editor of the campus humor magazine while a student at Dartmouth College after too much reveling with fellow students”
… which I find hilarious. Apparently, this led to his creation of his famous Seuss pseudonym, under which he continued to write for the magazine and then later continued to use the name in the creation of his books. The LoC states,
"‘The Cat in the Hat’ is considered the most important book of his career. More than 200 million Dr. Seuss books have been sold around the world.”
18. Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960)
My husband doesn’t even like reading (I know, I know!) but he likes this book. This book so moved both of us that “Atticus” was at the top of our name list for our children. We ended up naming our first son something different, but did eventually use the name on a later baby, whom we lost in miscarriage. Though the name now has a much deeper meaning for me, our original love for the name came from our love for the character, who is a champion of justice and truth in his town, and a defender of those most persecuted by society — specifically, a wrongly-accused black man being judged and considered guilty primarily for the color of his skin.
This book won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize, and tells such a moving story of the dangers of ignorance and assumptions, and the power of compassion and justice, with layer upon layer of thematic depth. Not everyone I know who’s read this book has loved it, but its impact can’t be denied.
19. Maurice Sendak, “Where the Wild Things Are” (1963)
This was my husband’s favorite book as a child… admittedly, maybe because it was more pictures than words. But in this book, the pictures are a huge part of the story. This strange, dream-like imaginative journey is a classic children’s book for a reason… and has now become one of our son’s favorites, as well.
19 Fiction Books That Shaped America…
This is by no means an exhaustive list! Even the Library of Congress admitted that they had to limit their selections based on the space available for the exhibition, and that they simply intended it to be a starting point for a conversation about other books which also have had a major impact on society.